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Jim Nichols knew it was coming

By Staff | Mar 27, 2011

Jim Nichols was right.

In fact, he was so right he was downright visionary.

I thought about that the other day when I made back-to-back trips on I-90; the first going two hours west to the South Dakota line – and back to Blue Earth – and the next day traveling two hours east to Rochester.

Traveling that route these days, one sees an awful lot of a certain item, and it isn’t snow banks. No, it’s wind turbine towers.

Some are close to I-90 by Worthington. Others dot the landscape by Dexter. But, if one looks off in the distance, there are dozens more to be seen all along the I-90 corridor.

Of course, one doesn’t have to look far from home to find them. There are two west of Blue Earth, and another two by Corn Plus in Winnebago.

And, you probably remember reading in the Faribault County Register recently, there is a wind farm planned for west of Blue Earth.

The point is, they are becoming extremely prevalent on the Minnesota landscape.

In fact, nearly 10 percent of the energy produced in Minnesota is now from wind. And, more turbines and towers are going up all the time. Eleven cities are in the process of building wind towers this year alone, including South St. Paul.

Wind power is becoming a huge deal in this state – as was predicted by Jim Nichols more than 20 years ago, before a single wind tower was ever built in Minnesota.

Many Register readers may not know who Jim Nichols is. He is a farmer near Lake Benton, and is a former Lincoln County commissioner, Minnesota state senator and Minnesota secretary of agriculture.

And, a friend of mine.

Nichols is a guy who gets pretty worked up over issues dealing with the environment and with agriculture.

He was a frequent visitor to my previous editor’s office in Southwest Minnesota.

It was on one of those visits in the late 1980s that Nichols predicted that wind power was coming, and coming fast. He said that Minnesota would soon be dotted with turbines atop towers, and wind would be a major contributor to the state’s energy grid.

And, he said, the people of Southwest Minnesota should lead the charge, because the Buffalo Ridge is one of the windiest places on Earth.

He was right.

On all counts.

Nichols himself led a group of citizens to the state legislature – including yours truly – to testify in favor of a bill mandating NSP (known now as Xcel Energy) to purchase a percentage of its power from renewable sources, including wind.

At the time, NSP was lobbying for permission to store spent nuclear fuel at its Prairie Island nuclear power plant.

Nichols, and others, were able to put in a clause requiring NSP to purchase renewable energy as part of the bill allowing them to store the nuclear fuel.

NSP had already constructed two small wind towers on the Buffalo Ridge near Woodstock as a test of the wind’s potential.

However, they had neglected to maintain them and the things hardly ever produced any results – or any electricity.

I think the test did convince NSP of one thing, however. They didn’t want to build the towers themselves and allowed others to do it – with NSP purchasing the wind-generated power.

In 1993 Minnesota’s first-ever wind farm was completed near Jim Nichols, farm outside Lake Benton. The cluster of 73 towers was built by Kennetech Corporation.

The next one quickly followed, built by Zond Energy Systems of Tehachapi, Calif. This one was bigger, consisting of 143 of the largest turbines constructed in the U.S.

The towers were 257 feet tall and weighed 196,000 pounds each. Each turbine (the size of a small van) had three blades, with a diameter of more than 157 feet.

Many more wind farms followed and now the towers stretch all the way southeast to Worthington and beyond. Small clusters of farmers and businessmen are joining together to build more of them. So are cities.

Nichols was right.

And, he put his money where his mouth is.

He put up a small wind turbine on his farm right away. Later, he installed a 1.5 megawatt turbine, at a cost of $1.5 million.

He would like to construct at least four more on his farm but he can’t.

Seems the things are so doggone popular there is at least a two-year waiting period to get one manufactured and delivered.

I wonder if my friend Jim Nichols saw that coming.